Why a Second Referendum Could Just Repeat the Same Mistake

There were calls for a second Referendum since approximately…the 24th of June 2016. Most of those calls have no doubt come from those who felt bitter about the loss. However, there is a lot of intelligent and considered thought – which only ever seems to happen in hindsight – about the nature of the original referendum and the problems it showed. If we just had a second referendum we could end up repeating the same mistakes.

I have discussed the problem of the way the referendum ran and ended before, especially since the knife-edge result was seen in the Scottish independence and the American presidential elections, too. The the problem lies with the way such a huge and complex decision of constitutional level was left to an “either/or” vote. It was like answering an essay question with a “yes” or a “no.” (See our blogs “Polar Politics” and “How to Trump Democracy” ).

A Referendum is not Necessarily sign of Democracy

The UK is a classic example of a country which claims it is a democracy but in practise there is shaky  evidence of true democratic process in every day life. Come to think of it, beyond the very occasional election, it is rare that democratic choice is practised at all. The best way to support my outlandish example of treason would be cite the opposite end of the scale as an example.

The jolly North Korea* is most certainly not a democracy and really makes no claim to be one. In fact the Kim family take great pride in their supremacy. So if in North Korea the people were given a choice that had an “either/or” outcome – such as whether they should paint the nuclear weapons red or slightly lighter red – no-one in the West would suddenly gasp: “my goodness, they are a democracy!” And yet in the UK we were asked if we wanted to “Leave or Remain” in just as simplistic and ineffectual manner. And that was it: our ‘mastery’ of democracy in full view. We knew nothing of what leaving would mean, since no plans had been proposed. We knew nothing of remaining, since no reform had been decided. So we  voted on the flip of a coin.

Ironically, most of what had been promised had to be reneged, debunked or revealed as an outright lie. So all we were left with was either voting for a status quo we weren’t quite happy with, or a new situation which no-one had planned for. Since no-one had ever really planned for it, there was no way to provide the public with all the information needed in order to make such a monumental constitutional decision.

Many people could well have voted without truly understanding the sheer scope and longevity – or maybe I should  say “consequences” – of the choice they were being given. The flippancy and fickleness of social opinion is not something we really should balance decades of hard work and important unity on. Especially not when it will affect generations to come.

Perhaps the question we should be asking is: should this have been a referendum in the first place?

Without getting too academic about the issue, I think its worth taking a step back and looking at our democratic process, especially in relation to the referendum. Is it possible to engage the entire public in a complex choice? How do we simplify it enough in order to satisfy the practicalities of a referendum – which has to take into consideration the limits of the layman – whilst ensuring the engagement is meaningful enough to meet due process and address the needs of the whole nation? Let’s not be coy about this: some voters do not engage with political dialogue enough to cast an informed opinion. Yes, there it is: I dared to say the unthinkable.

We are not all equal: socially, educationally, or intellectually.

The Democracy of the past… **

The democracy of Ancient Greece was one of the earliest examples of a deliberately structure political systems that empowered the people to genuinely contribute to their own governance.

It was in 507BC when Cleisthenes, ruler of Athens, introduced the demokratia – “rule by the people.”  In comparison with modern day democracy the whole system is fascinating. The demokratia was split into 3 distinct sections:

  • the ekklesia: a sovereign governing body or Assembly that wrote the laws and organised foreign policy (pretty much the function of our combined houses of parliament);
  • the boule: a council of representatives from ten Athenian tribes (effectively similar to our system of local councillors, or our MPs and the House of Commons);
  • the dikasteria: the courts in which citizens argued cases in front of a jury selected by a lottery (similar to our Crown Court system of law).

The main idea of this structure was to abolish the old aristocratic “ruling class” and aim for equality. It wasn’t just a gesture of empowerment, either – it was a pragmatically very clear one. The only problem with the definition was on who got to be involved. Just like our society today, involvement in the political process was for citizens aged 18+ only. However, being a “citizen” was quite different in ancient Greece. Only 100,000 men and women whose parents were Athenian citizens were classed as citizens. The 10,000 foreign residents were not. Nor were the 150,000 slaves. Since only males over 18 years of age were allowed to vote, it meant that only 40,000 out of an approximate 260,000. Before you scramble for your calculator: it’s 15% of all people in Athens. (To answer your next question: the proportion of non-citizen migrants who could not vote is surprisingly similar, with 4% in ancient Greece compared to 5% in the UK.)

So we should be careful about romanticising about it too much.

Nevertheless, the system shared the power, but on a practical basis it was handled differently and far more actual decision-making power was placed in the hands of the people. The Assembly (ekklesia) would meet almost every week and make decisions of, or based on law. For example, they would decide on any ostracism that was required: where an Athenian would be banished from city for 10 years – much in the same way that our government, or Home Office can impose a 10 year ban on a migrant (usually only ever used when they try and defraud their way into the UK). All decisions were made by a vote and the majority vote would win. Each assembly would be made up of 5000 men from the ten different tribes. That is not only a large meeting, it constitutes 2% of the entire population meeting almost every week.  Each Boule had 500 citizens meeting, which is not far off our entire house of commons. Moreover, representatives were selected by lot rather than election. That’s why they never bothered with TV debates for election time.

(That, and the lack of Television, no doubt.)

Considering that we have a population of over 65 million in the UK represented by just 650 MPs, the ancient Greeks had an astonishingly higher proportion of citizenship representation. To give you an idea of what those numbers represent:

Athens had a population of around 26o,000, which is approximately the size of Westminster. The 5000 people meeting in the ekklesia (the assembly) made laws and decisions for Athens…not 65 million people.

So whereas we might scoff that only 15% of population of ancient Greece were voting and empowered citizens, their proportionate representation significantly dwarfed ours. So when it comes to “democracy” being “power of the people” we are a long way behind being “all in this together,” which is a common promise of the Tory Party.

(History AND maths in one post on politics. Spot the ex-teacher!)

“Everyone’s Entitled to their Opinion”

One of the other problems with the referendum was that it relied on the opinion of the general public, but made no requirement that such opinions be qualified. It made no difference to the polling card if the person making the mark was an educated, intelligent and informed individual, or this guy:

Of course, many people will tell me – after having been shocked that I dare to suggest that we are not in fact all equal – that we live in a “democracy” so we have to put up with and accept that bigoted, ignorant, racist people like the (*cough*) gentleman above must  be allowed a vote. But what if it wasn’t?  Why must we listen to such bigoted, racist ignorance just to satisfy a skewed ideal of democracy – especially when our country’s democracy is so far removed from an actual power of the people?

We constantly hear people say the phrase: “I am entitled to my opinion.” The protestation is most often heard from those who have shared an opinion which is factually wrong, has been met with a more qualified disagreement, or has been otherwise completely rebuked by other sensible (informed) opinions. It’s surprising how often people misunderstand the difference between Fact and Opinion. But more problematic, especially when being entrusted with as important decisions as Brexit or Bremain is when people insist on their right to their opinion without seeing to their responsibility to ensure their opinion was informed.

Politicians bank on that ignorance. Especially ones like Farage, who relied on the ignorant masses who would jump on anti-immigration narratives without any attempt to seek out facts. And he wasn’t even officially on the campaign. Anyone could have found out that the sovereignty they wanted to reclaim for the UK had never been lost. Anyone could have looked into the figures and noticed the failings of subsequent governments to build and provide social housing as being the main cause of the crisis – and not immigration. Furthermore, it didn’t take much to know that the NHS would never get the promised £350m: but it wold crumble if we sent “all them immigrants back.”

But not enough people took the responsibility for the accuracy of their opinions seriously enough to actually seek out readily available information.

It seems that if it isn’t served on a spoon, too many Brits find a fact is simply too hard to swallow.

“The Voice of the People”

Richard Dawkins has spoken out quite recently against the way the referendum was run and how it simply doesn’t represent the “voice of the people.” The idea that the people have spoken and given their choice in the majority is simple not true. The win was only by a margin of 4%. That might be fine for a minor issue, but as I have said before, and above, for the “flip of the coin” to be used on something as complex and far-reaching as EU membership, having broken down and allowed to win in such a way is what  has lead to the backlash afterwards.

Interestingly, this is exactly what Dawkins had warned about in his article on 9th June: “Brexit Roulette.”

Had Cameron insisted on a minimum turnout, and a minimum winning vote, the sense of a win being the “voice of the people” would have been more valid. Dawkins points out that we could have insisted on a two thirds majority in order to secure the decision, but Cameron never bothered to do that.

Instead we were left with the “fickle” and “transient” opinions of the electorate; ill informed and lied to; beckoned and badgered by media hyperbole and propaganda. Dawkins also accuses Cameron of “playing Russian Roulette with our grandchildren’s future because the EU Referendum as a vote on the constitutional level. It was huge, and long-lasting.

As we approach Theresa May triggering Brexit, I’d say that analogy was somewhat apt.

Why a second Referendum would not solve the problem

The problems with the first referendum all stemmed from the rush-job made of it. Not enough information; not enough clarity; not enough honesty. It was still a battle of the parties – still the Tories running scared of UKIP. Cameron fumbled the whole referendum, and then ran scared when the result didn’t go his way. Then Theresa May came in to pick at the pieces of almost half a nation utterly shocked and dismayed about the result.

It has been suggested that there has been a growing number of Brexit voters saying “had I known (a) or been told (b) I might  have voted differently… ,” and this should give us all pause for thought. Our “democracy” is not built for constitutional reform to be combined with the simplicity afforded to an “either/or” style referendum. Further evidence that our democracy is simply not equipped to deal with complex political choice.

The UK public is too concerned with their rights to have a vote without having the responsibility of its result resting on their shoulders.

In ancient Greece they might have only had 15% of their population eligible to vote – and we might scoff at that – but each and every one of them also had the absolute responsibility hammered into them from the outset. they took the responsibility for Athens squarely on their shoulders so much so that their vote was not an entitlement, but a duty. 

Until democracy is seen as a duty for UK citizens, and opinions are required to be qualified, a constitutional referendum can surely only be destined to fail to meet the needs of the people rather than the desires of the individual.

So a second referendum on the same binary choice would surely just repeat the same mistakes.

Why not join in with our blog while you are here? How would you vote if the EU referendum happened now?

*I don’t mean to belittle the seriousness of issues that relate to North Korea and its governance. But if anyone else has seen the 2004 film “Team America: World Police” – yes it really was that long ago – I am sure you can appreciate a small snigger at anything that mad-hat ruling family does!

** It’s been a long fifteen years since I did my degree, and I have tried to keep the history lesson simple. However, if you are an expert in Democracy in ancient Athens and wish to suggest minor amendments please do leave a comment. My ego is like an apple: you can bruise it, but it is still edible.